Is it worth selling images to stock photography libraries?
Virtually since the advent of photography, images have been capitalised and monetised in a variety of ways. With the aim of serving demand for fresh imagery, and an idea of quantity over quality, stock libraries and agencies were quick to emerge, with the likes of Getty and Corbis setting the benchmark for decades.
But in recent years a number of smaller fish have joined the pond and quickly grown in popularity. Couple this with the age of visual media, and today the sheer number of stock images is more immense than ever.
Yet however tempting it may for amateurs and semi-professionals to jump onboard the stock photography train, a glance at the numbers involved certainly doesn’t paint a picture of a lucrative practice. So is it worth the time for budding snappers to contribute to Getty or Shutterstock?
Here, we have a chat with some of those companies’ executives as well as some of their star contributors to take a peek behind the curtain of a successful stock imagery flow and to find out what it takes to make stock photography worthwhile.
A quick google search about the usefulness of stock libraries to photographers (at least in a monetary sense) will paint a fairly vivid picture of the meagre earnings experienced by most when first trying their hand in the stock world. Even despite the claim plastered across many of Shutterstock’s webpages that they have “paid over $500 million to its contributors”, it doesn’t take much to divide that by the sheer amount of photographers on board to see the average income for an individual shrinks to next to nothing.
Even across the spectrum of agencies and libraries available for photographers to choose from, simply the number of people with DSLR’s in their hands nowadays means that making any semblance of a living from stock contributions is near impossible.
However, whilst you might not be able to pay the bills with stock, many of the online platforms offer sleek and minimal interfaces for uploads, meaning it doesn’t take much effort to get your work online. And as your portfolio increases and sales eventually grow, it might just one day provide some easy background cash for a new tripod or camera bag.
Indeed it seems that the allure of this kind of passive income is what keeps a substantial portion of photographers interested in the idea of stock contributions but often it can be difficult to discern the best path for getting started in this game and more so when wading through the large number of libraries and agencies to choose from.
For many, the words stock photography are almost synonymous with two others: Getty Images. For decades now, Getty has remained the stock image library, and to some extent has set the benchmark for both image quality and the standard for photographers’ compensation.
And in the last few years the giant of Getty has only grown; swallowing their primary competition Corbis before birthing several offshoots of their own, including iStock.
But according to Getty’s Director of Creative Content, Andrew Delaney, Getty’s growth hasn’t diminished the core values that the company set out with and even today, the criteria for successful images and successful stock photographers at Getty remain the same.
“Artists are at the heart of everything we do and the reason why Getty Images and iStock by Getty Images has continued to be an important destination for stock content,” says Delaney. “By providing a platform for our artists to distribute some of the best stock content in the world, we are helping them to transform their lives by making a living through their art.”
Responding from Getty’s headquarters in the USA, Delaney has just returned from a tour from of Australia and New Zealand for “iStockalypse” – a series of workshops and events that aims to train the next wave of stock photographers in visual language, image production workflows as well as their ability to continually produce useful, relevant content.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of stock photography whilst also the most challenging for photographers is that the appetite of brands and publications is always in flux. Core to any marketing and publication venture is the need to stay relevant; something that trickles down to the need for photographers to produce images that reflect this visually.
As Delaney explains, the last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the want for authenticity. As opposed to the polished and refined content of decades past, editorial and marketing now relies heavily on imagery that appears to be genuine and candid, so training the new generation of stock masters in this language has become increasingly important.
“People are highly critical of and vocal about advertising and imagery in a way they haven’t been before,” says Delaney. “Social media has had a huge impact on the type of imagery that resonates. Put simply, people want to see authentic, real-life imagery. People are fed up with perfection.” And as he adds, this has been particularly pertinent in Australia, where a want for diversity and realism in images is in huge demand. “This is especially apparent with the need for more authentic representation of Australians,” says Delaney.
“Over the past year we have seen the search term ‘multicultural’ increase by over 100% year-on-year and the terms ‘indigenous Australian’ and ‘city life authentic’ are up over 200%.”
However, simply being aware of the type of content that is demand is only half the battle when it comes to starting out in stock. As most successful contributors will tell you, a large portion of time is dedicated to brainstorming, planning, scheduling and logistics, with actual time behind the lens comprising only a very small percentage of total effort.
Getty contributor Josh Hodge has managed to carve a good name for himself in the stock imagery game, amassing an impressive portfolio on the Getty website spanning lifestyle and travel imagery very much in line with Delaney’s sentiment for authentic photographs.
But as Hodge admits, this hasn’t come without a considerable investment of both time and money.
For Hodge, “It all started with a trip to Africa and using a new camera. I got some shots on that trip that I uploaded to Getty Images via Flickr for fun,” he says. “Within 18 months, after a lot of investment and hard work, I had broken even and had a good portfolio together generating very good income,” he says – without omitting the need for good planning and some basic meteorological knowledge:
“I think most of my time and effort is put into planning. Reaching out to people and places, trying to get things to align in a way that has authenticity, and the weather, I’m always watching the weather. I find the shoots that take the most time to put together and require the most patience often work out the best.”
In addition to this, Hodge’s success seems to have been built on a tripod of concepts: three rules that are essential to follow for aspiring stock photographers. Be ahead of the curve, shoot what you know and build a large portfolio. Hodge draws particular attention to the first two points, describing the need to know your own style, develop your own photographic voice and then to pre-empt the market as much as possible.
“I've always found that anything that is shot a little bit ahead of the curve or ahead of what the majority of other people are shooting tends to do better. I read all of the creative briefs that Getty Images sends out and some of them trigger my thinking and my passion to shoot certain themes, either in a completely different way, or sometimes, just with a slight adjustment,” he says.
“I try and give clients the themes and subjects that they want to buy, shot in the best way that I know how to. There is importance in shooting what you know and what you are passionate about. Start with what you know best and offer that to clients.”
New kids on the block
While the financial benefits of jumping on board with a stock agency may not always be immediately promising, many amateur photographers still flock to larger organizations like Getty simply for the ego boost of seeing your first published work or even by just updating your email signature to “Getty contributor”. And there is no shame in this. For many that are seriously considering turning the craft of photography into a profession, taking this route can be fruitful both in terms of self-esteem and eventually a small amount of income.
For years, Getty remained the default selection for young photographers because of their monopoly hold on the market. But in more recent times, a number of new names have appeared on the market and grown rapidly.
Adobe Stock, Stocksy, Crestock and Dreamstime are but a few of the names that have sprung up in a relatively short amount of time, each offering a unique take on the buyer/seller relationship and the benefits for photographers. Stocksy, founded by Bruce Livingstone, has radically altered the very idea of the stock contributing model, raising the profit margin for photographers from Getty’s 20% to 50% as well as the revolutionary idea of making all contributors stakeholders in the company itself.
While Stocksy’s selection process is highly competitive, if you have the right content and find yourself on board with them, you will also find yourself benefiting from dividends and real equity in the business you are contributing to.
Perhaps most popular among these new kids on the block however has been Shutterstock. Having seemed to have found a happy medium between the traditional Getty-esque model and a more sleek, modern, community oriented interface, Shutterstock now boasts a very healthy depository of images, contributors and buyers.
But as has been evidenced across many of the new stock libraries/agencies like those listed above, most seem to be acutely aware of the need for more than a monetary incentive for contributors. In the age of social media, constant communication and shared ideas, many platforms have aimed to integrate sleeker, more intuitive and faster interfaces for uploading (something that Getty has been criticized for omitting) but also to facilitate camaraderie rather than competitiveness as web-based integrations like forums, user feedback, ratings and favorites are helping to demonstrate the importance of community in this setting.
But as Paul Brennan of Shutterstock says, this also applies to the company’s behind the scene's employees as thorough feedback is given to photographers on a regular basis.
“We have a team of reviewers who evaluate every piece of content submitted to us, and they determine whether to approve or decline each one,” he says.
“If we decline something, the contributor receives specific feedback about the reason why it was rejected, which helps to educate them on becoming a stronger artist. We help our contributors to grow and get better at their craft.”
In addition to this, Shutterstock publishes a regular guide – “The Shot List” that allows contributors to keep up to date with what is happening across the industry and facilitate photographers’ ability to cater to the more immediate needs of image consumers.
As Brennan describes, while membership at a stock agency/library like Shutterstock might not always provide a large amount of a photographer’s income, it can certainly provide an important “piece of their financial puzzle” and in many ways it is the more interactive features of an agency like these that allow any given photographer to take a more passive or active approach to interacting with their library. As opposed to the early days of Getty and Corbis, stock agencies are now almost customizable in terms of how much photographers choose to actively target certain niches.
But having said that, there still exists a rather large number of stock photographers who take a slightly more backseat approach. Often simply relying on imagery they would have shot anyway, the intuitiveness of modern upload interfaces has allowed photos to be submitted from almost anywhere – essentially providing a hassle-free way to monetise photographs that might not have ever seen the light of day otherwise.
An advocate of this approach is Shutterstock contributor Olga Kashubin whose database of imagery on the Shutterstock servers is comprised almost entirely of images from her travels. Having camped around Japan, Vietnam and New Zealand for long stints of time, Kashubin says that she was looking for a way to potentially monetise her swaths of images and found the answer in stock contributing.
“I always wondered where all the material for travel guides, magazines and brochures is coming from and how I could contribute,” she says. “That is how I found stock libraries and Shutterstock in particular. It was easy to set up a contributor account and start uploading. Now my portfolio consists of thousands of pictures, all taken during my travels.”
However, whilst Kashubin’s approach might be considered much more passive than many in the stock game, she is quick to caveat that her workflow is not without a certain level of cognizance toward techniques that will facilitate her success.
Much like Hodge, her efficacy as a stock contributor has been built on a trio of principles. Here she draws attention to the need to set expectations and be practicable, to be familiar with legalities impacting photography and to annotate and attribute your work well.
On top of this, Kashubin leaves a parting sentiment that speaks volumes as to the nature of stock photography as after all, most clients will be utilizing images to speak to an audience but also to compete within the currently expected/accepted visual language of advertising and media.
“There are certain norms and quality standards of processing accepted in the industry. It could be a topic of lengthy discussion,” says Kashubin. “But in brief, after going through thousands of photo reviews, approvals and rejections I formed a workflow and a style of editing that’s fitting my artistic view, as well as the requirements of stock agencies and clients. "
In a nutshell
It would seem that whether you take a very passive or very active approach to both shooting for and interacting with your stock photo library, the core principle remains the same. In essence, most images sold from stock libraries are considered at length and then chosen for their ability to communicate what advertisers or editorial clients need.
Just like the culture and subconscious-savvy minds of marketing gurus and entrepreneurs, so the minds of successful stock photographers must be acutely tuned to the collective cultural wants and needs of consumers du jour. As analytics become less expensive, photographers’ ability to assess the relevance of their work becomes increasingly important. And in many ways, the key to success in the stock game can essentially boil down to that one term alone: relevance. ❂